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It turns out the earliest known photograph of Vincent van Gogh is not actually Vincent van Gogh

The photograph that for fifty years has appeared in a myriad of books, encyclopedias and catalogues billed as the earliest known photo of Vincent Van Gogh is not actually him.

Last November, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam revealed the boy in the famous portrait is not a 13-year-old Vincent but his brother, 15-year-old Theo.

For Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo, the revelation was surprising, but he was satisfied that the decades-long mystery had finally been solved.

“It is essential that Vincent van Gogh’s legacy is correctly passed on and preserved and this research makes a significant contribution to such efforts,” said Willem, who also serves as an advisor to the museum’s board.

The discovery is the result of an investigation by the museum, corroborated by forensic scrutiny by the University of Amsterdam’s Informatics Institute.

“We have rid ourselves of an illusion while gaining a portrait of Theo,” Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rüger said.

“We have essentially returned to the situation as it always was up to the mistaken identification in 1957, with a single photographic portrait of the young, 19-year-old Vincent van Gogh.”

Above, Theo van Gogh, aged 13. Below, Vincent van Gogh, aged 19.

Above, Theo van Gogh, aged 13. Below, Vincent van Gogh, aged 19.

The supposed photograph of “13-year-old Vincent” was made public for the first time back in 1957 at an exhibition organised by art expert Mark Edo Tralbaut.

“The question of whether it could be someone else never came up,” Teio Meedendorp, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, said of the mystery.

“There was never any immediate cause for doubt, precisely also because the boy in this photograph bears similarities to the portrait of the 19-year-old Vincent.”

The veracity of the image was questioned in 2014 in a Dutch TV show that used experimental technology to suggest that the boy in the photograph was a different person.

Around the same time, writer Yves Vasseur had begun to doubt the photo as well. He discovered by chance that Balduin Schwarz, the photographer who took the portrait, only moved into his Brussels studio in 1870 when Vincent was 17.

He shared his doubts with the museum which sparked an official investigation. The museum found out that Vincent’s brother Theo had lived in Brussels around 1873 and, according to letters, had a photograph taken of himself when he was approximately 15 years old.

“The lighter colour of Theo’s eyes is especially striking in the known photographs of him,” Meedendorp said.

“This can also be seen in the Schwarz portrait. This was another indication that the person in the portrait is probably Theo.”

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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